More than a million acres are charred black in California as the result of historic wildfires this summer. For residents like Nick Pike, whose home was destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex fires in the hills west of Vacaville, the blazes are simply devastating.
“This sucks,” Pike said. “We have four kids. Everything’s gone.”
At the time, Pike said he had no idea how many people evacuated or made it out of their homes. “But it seems as bad as the Paradise one to me, with the amount of smoke and fire we're seeing,” he said.
California experienced a spree of fires caused by more than 12,000 lightning strikes in August. In many ways, the blazes were unprecedented. But experts say these kinds of wildfires will also become very normal and routine if we do not take significant action to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Climate change is a driving factor. But another major cause of the fires is excess fuel, which allows them to grow so big so quickly, in part because of a century of fire suppression.
The number of dangerous and extremely hot "fire days" in California is also on the rise. And efforts to mitigate fire fuels, including prescribed burns — where fires are lit on purpose in cooler months to burn away excess debris and dead wood — aren't happening fast enough.
One challenge with letting fires burn, however, is more people than ever are living in rural and fire-prone communities and zones. This means there’s also a need to reframe how residents view fires; they’re not always bad.
“We're looking at our future every time we look at a fire,” Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said of the recent blazes in Northern California, two of which were the largest fires by acreage in state history.
There are solutions — more of these prescriptive burns, removing trees killed by bark beetles, cleaning-up the area around homes — but experts say any immediate answer will be futile unless California, and the world, dramatically rethinks its approach to the climate crisis.
“Wildfires in California are going to continue or get worse,” said Stanford University climate scientist Michael Goss. “It could be that we're going to see more seasons where we have multiple large wildfires across the state of California.”
More Fuel In California Than Ever
One of the difficulties when it comes to mitigating wildfires in California is that, in recent decades, an increasing amount of the state is vulnerable.
“Outdated policies and human-caused climate change [have] increased burn area [by] 900% across the western U.S. since 1984,” said UC Berkeley forest ecologist and climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez.
This means areas such as Vacaville and the hills and canyons surrounding Lake Berryessa, where the LNU Lightning Complex blazes traveled at high speeds, are much drier and susceptible to early-season wildfires.
“These fires are burning more severely and increasing the carbon emissions that drive climate change,” Gonzalez said of how they in turn perpetuate the climate crisis.
Another huge part of the reason why fires are so hard to control in California is because there’s a legacy of fire suppression.
“The root of what makes forest fires in California a problem is still the lack of good forest stewardship,” said Kristen Shive, director of science for the advocacy group Save the Redwoods League. “Climate change is exacerbating our fuels problem. Right? And as it continues to warm I think that just raises the urgency to do” a better job of forest thinning and allowing blazes to burn in certain areas.
The state has more than 48 million acres of forests and chaparral, or highly flammable shrubs and bushes. Within that land are about 3 million homes.
Wildfires in California are going to continue or get worse.
Long ago, some 4.5 million acres or more burned annually prior to the year 1800, according to a study by UC Berkeley. But that no longer occurs at that scale.
“When we started suppressing fires 100 years ago all the time, we actually allowed a huge buildup of fuels and debris,” said UC system forest advisor Susie Kocher, who is based in the Lake Tahoe region.
She is an advocate for requiring residents to clean up the extra fuel — grasses, trees, shrubs and clutter — around their homes, making them fire ready, and for more prescribed burns.
“There's a need for more frequent, low-severity fire across the landscape, so that we wouldn't have quite so much explosion in the burning in the fields that we have currently,” Kocher said.
Another issue that contributes to the increase in fire fuels is that more and more people are living in areas prone to burning, according to Gonzalez with UC Berkeley.
“With more people moving into fire prone areas, the eruption of wildfire has contributed to a doubling of wildfire-related deaths and a 60% increase in wildfire-related property damage costs since 2008,” he said.
How much of California would have to burn to reach a safe space, or to hit the reset and hopefully avoid extreme wildfires? A January 2020 Nature Sustainability study suggests that 20 million acres would need to be addressed with either prescribed burns or other treatment.
Although, there’s been a lot of work across California to rid the state of excess brush and the more than 129 million trees killed by bark beetles during the multi-year drought in the mid 2000s, the state is nowhere close to burning that much. The Newsom administration outlined 35 areas to remove hazard trees in 2019, but that plan covered fewer than 100,000 acres.
In August, the state and federal government agreed to clean up 1 million acres by 2025, with practices such as prescribed burns. Part of that agreement also included a commitment to create a 20-year plan by next year to prioritize areas for forest-thinning. But even this plan is sliver of what's needed to protect California from devastating future wildfires.
“I think it's a good indication they're paying attention now and that we're moving in the right direction,” said Michael Jones a UC system forestry advisor in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties. “My hope is that once we start with a million, then it's really easy to scale up to multiple millions.”
More Hot Days
The recent heatwave across Northern California, where temperatures in the valley crested 110 degrees for several days, is an example of a phenomenon that scientists say could become more common in California.
In early August, a study by Stanford, UCLA and UC Merced researchers found that the number of ideal fall days for a wildfire to start — that’s when some of the largest fires in the state have ignited in recent history — has jumped from four to 12 since 1979.
Final version of our (open access) paper on #ClimateChange and extreme #wildfire conditions in California is out today. I'm still planning on having a Weather West blog write-up, but I've postponed that until later due to current events. #CAwx #CAfire https://t.co/kei6rJBoZg https://t.co/nynjJZ2wBH— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) August 20, 2020
The increased fire danger is a result of less rain and warmer temperatures, says Goss. In the Sierra region, the researchers found the number of fire risky days are at about eight. But Goss expects that number to grow by three or four days in coming years.
These additional days result from just a one degree rise in global temperatures, says study co-author and Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh.
“Another degree of global warming on top of that, and we can be confident it will increase the occurrence of extreme wildfire weather further,” he said. “The trajectory we've been on will likely lead to greater than three degrees, and potentially four or five degrees.”
With just one degree, California is already experiencing some of the worst wildfires in history, droughts that last years, record heat waves, fire tornados, sea level rise — and the list goes on.
Their study isn’t all grim. The authors say the goal is to demonstrate that the number of high-fire-risk days can be reduced through mitigation efforts.
“Even if there are some aspects of the climate system that are things we're not going to be able to stop at this point, there are things that we can at least do to prevent those changes from leading to disasters,” Goss said.
But one of the study’s authors said in August that this fall could be one of those really dry and warm seasons, which after a fiery summer wouldn’t be good news for California.
“September and October both look significantly warmer than average, and most likely drier,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain in August. “We will probably see a full extension of fire season at least through October this year.”
Cleaning Up History Is Expensive
The true cost of preparing the state for wildfires will be billions and billions of dollars. And it’s not one-time spending; as forests regrow, they demand continued maintenance — or, like we’re witnessing in 2020, they’ll burn on their own.
“You do the work and then a couple years later, you got to go back and get in there and do more work,” Jones said.
I think it's fair to say the fires could be just as devastating as COVID-19.
The year-to-year, ever-increasing costs of wildfires is expected to rise as the number of days that are perfect for fire conditions also increase due to climate change.
That’s something Adam Rose, an expert in economics of disasters and climate change policy at USC, is thinking about. He says the probability of fires costing more than a pandemic is very likely.
“Wildfires in one year, it's not as big as COVID, but what we should do is look at the probabilities of occurrence,” Rose said. “I think it's fair to say the fires could be just as devastating as COVID-19.”
And he points out the toll is more than the economic impact.
“Some places, like the city of Paradise, which was hit by the Camp Fire a couple of years ago, may never, ever, ever recover,” he said. “So, the business-interruption losses are pretty sizable, as well. And then there's the human costs, and people are losing their homes and memories.”
Fire, Even When Destructive, Isn’t Always Bad
With fires burning 1.3 million acres so far in California in 2020, the scar will be recognizable for years to come. But the fires also have burned overgrowth and could have long-term ecological benefits.
“There'll be some areas where the fire did a lot of good,” said Kocher, the forestry advisor in Tahoe. “It's a chance to reset our management.”
She means excess brush is gone and trees now can grow in a more spaced-out way, or can be replanted to offset the carbon that was emitted during a wildfire.
“I would say suspend judgment about whether or not this is a disaster for the landscape until we see more data on how affected our systems are,” Kocher said.
Yes, the blazes this August hold immediate pain for those that love places like Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where fire burned buildings and trees. But according to Rachel Lazerri-Aerts, a San Jose State lecturer that studies the trees, the fires aren’t an endgame.
“There's going to be some of the trees that aren't going to survive, but the rest of them they're going to regrow,” she said.
Lazerri-Aerts says the majority of the old-growth redwoods, which could be more than 2,000 years, will likely revive. This is based on a study conducted after a fire in 2008, and found that a majority of the trees survived and grew new shoots.
“Fundamentally, the main solution to a lot of the fire problems that we have [is] taking action on climate change,”
Shive, with the Save the Redwoods League, says the trees are also survivors because of bark that can be a foot thick and withstand fire.
“If a fire burns up the entire crown for a lot of conifers, that can mean that's the end. But for these trees, they have the capacity to sprout along the trunk,” she said.
Shive and Lazzeri-Aerts also say climate change is having negative effects on redwoods in the most southern part of the coastal range. Drought, a lack of coastal fog and warmer days are slowing growth rates.
“In the Santa Cruz mountains, we have drier conditions than the north coast, so we tend to have more fire here, anyways,” Lazzeri-Aerts said. “As we continue to see climate change, because it's already drier here, it's the trees in these forests that are going to be impacted negatively compared to our north coast redwoods.”
Despite the complex relationship the trees have with coastal fog and fire, overall, UC Berkeley Plant Biologist Todd Dawson says, if the warming trends, decreasing fog and drying patterns continue it could eventually spell bad news for the forests.
“If we lose fog all together, certainly there will be a negative effect because the trees definitely benefit by having it during the summer growing season ... but right now in the northern part of the range we don't see that,” Dawson said.
‘The Main Solution’
Prescribed burns and forest-thinning are, again, options to protect some communities from wildfires. But the reality is any and every action California is taking so far is incremental, like burning a few haystacks when there are 48 million more waiting to enter the furnace.
Some suggest the state needs to rethink the way it fights fires, from response to planning, which would take the entire restructuring of a system.
“Technically, we have all the tools to do this,” Gonzalez said. “The more that people realize that proactive fire management can avoid the catastrophic wildfires … the more people hopefully will favor proactive fire management.”
Reducing the risk of megafires, like the current LNU and SZU Lightning Complex fires and past blazes like the Rim Fire near Yosemite, isn’t just about burning all the extra debris. Addressing the systemic challenge — climate change — could mean fewer extreme wildfires over the course of history, Gonzalez says.
“In order to avoid dangerous climate interferences, the entire world needs to substantially reduce our emissions and eventually go to an energy system that is completely renewable,” he said.
Gonzalez applauds California’s action in the climate fight, such as laws that require becoming carbon neutral by 2045, and plans for emissions reductions from trucks, cars and ports. But he says even all the work the state has done is just a first step.
“Fundamentally, the main solution to a lot of the fire problems that we have [is] taking action on climate change,” he said. “To be carbon-free is the ultimate end goal, and the sooner we reach that, the better it will be for nature and for people.”
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